Friday, September 19, 2014

Workers Rebel against privatized government and industry in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Interview with Emina BUSULADZIC, of Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina,
conducted by Dimitar Anakiev and Dominique Ferré, for the International News Bulletin (INB), published 2014-09-19 by the "ILC International Newsletter", New Series N. 192 (561):
Notes are numbered in parentheses and are elaborated at the end of the article
The 13th and 14th of September 2014, in Ljubljana (Slovenia), the Association of Wiped out Workers (ZID) organised a first Balkan workers meeting, where political activists and trade unionists from Slovenia, from Serbia and Bosnia Herzegovina took part (messages being sent from Greece and Romania). More than twenty years after the wars that decomposed and ravaged ex-Yugoslavia, the labour activists present, engaged in the battle against privatisation, talked of the search for common political action among workers of the former Yugoslav Republics. The meeting opened with a homage to comrade Pavlusko Imsirovic (1948-2014), recently deceased, Yugoslav Trotskyst activist for the last fifty years, fighting the wars and military intervention (1991-1999).

INB: Can you present yourself ?
EB: I am called Emina Busuladzic, I am the worker who has been here the longest in the detergent factory DITA in the town of Tuzla (1) in Bosnia Herzegovina. I was president of the Strike Committee and executive member of the factory union. I took part in the uprising of the workers of Tuzla that began in the DITA factory. I refused to leave on early retirement which I was proposed; I am to-day member of the Executive Commission of the union “Solidarnost”.
Our readers remember that in February 2014, the workers of several factories in Tuzla rebelled and rose up against privatisation and the institutions inherited from the Dayton Agreement (1995) (2).

INB: Can you explain to us what led up to this uprising ?
EB: The Bosnian and international media covered the events in February, then there was no more.. Nobody knows that still to-day the sacked workers assemble every Wednesday in front of the authorities' seat. And that began well before February 2014, even if I think this uprising came too late. But most of the workers were not in a state to understand what was happening to them with privatisation. The pillaging of Tuzla factories did not begin yesterday. For me, it began under the Ante Markovic government (3) when he changed the law on ownership and when workers were pushed into buying shares in their company. In fact, workers were being forced to buy something that belonged to them already ! The part not sold to workers in the form of shares remained “social property”. Then this part was renamed “State property”. It was at that time what's more, on the one hand they were stealing from the workers their companies, their machines and on the other giving them war machines to kill each other with. Workers were transformed into soldiers. To cover up all this policy of destruction from 1989 to 1994, they had to develop all these so called “nationalist” movements.

INB: Were you ready to affront privatisation,
EB: My generation grew up under Tito. For our generation it is the State that should guarantee and ensure workers rights and it is not for us to fight for our rights. And so it was easy to cheat the working class which was not used to fighting to defend its rights. In 1997 and 1998 there was a second wave of privatisation. The public service the SDK, that ensured State control on companies was liquidated. At that time, the manager of our factory was qualified by the media “as the best manager in the whole of Bosnia”. But the following year difficulties started in the factory: debts rose, wages started not being paid. At that time they began to offer workers to buy back the shares they had been forced to buy nearly ten years before. The workers did not understand what they were talking about. What is the saddest for me, is that we had always considered the factory  directors as people close to us, people that we knew personally for years, and who from one day to the next started working for the interests of people nobody knew.

INB: Can you describe the privatisation process at that moment ?
EB: The SDK and the Workers' Council having disappeared, the factory management and its new masters began to do as they liked with no control existing any more. To sell off our companies cheaply to certain people their price had to be the lowest possible. At the time, State institutions were already in the hands of criminal Mafiosi groups who did all they could to sell off the factories as cheaply as possible. At that time, workers were once again offered the possibility of buying the shares of the part of the company that had remained “State property”. 270 workers and six members of management took out loans to buy these shares. I remember, each month half my wages disappeared to pay off my loan. ..
In 6 months, the situation got brutally worse. The company began to work with ghost companies, lorries filled with goods disappeared, while whole bags full of cash went nobody knows where...
At that time I was working in the research and innovation division, and all the projects of new products were blocked by the management that no longer wanted to invest. However, we have since learnt that enormous loans were contracted at the time and nobody knows what has become of them. The situation of 1994 has been repeated, with months of unpaid wages. It is at this moment that the union began to take action. The head of the union began to say to workers “DITA, is finished, sell your shares as quickly as possible”.
The head of the union told us: the only possibility of our saving ourselves is “strategic partnership”, that they presented as the “third transition way” . That is how in 2005 an agreement was signed with the private company LORA from Sarajevo, that took possession of the capital of DITA. This agreement was kept secret until 2010 … having said this, someone left anonymously a copy at my work post, obviously hoping I would do something with it! My battle had begun some time before, when I joined the union and with other colleagues, had observed that the then head of the union was not defending our interests. We managed to get rid of the former head and elect a new one, in spite of great pressure from the management directed against us. For instance, while I was the worker who had been in the factory for the longest time I was sent to an unqualified position in a 3x8 team in order to try and “break” me. But we did not give up. In 2009, it was clear that our factory was on its way to liquidation, with important wage arrears. Management was campaigning against me, explaining that all that was the union's fault and that it was especially responsible for refusing to sign the cheap collective agreement that management proposed us. Pressure was such that I was forced to sign the agreement, but I immediately put in a complaint accusing management of having forced me to sign. At the time we had had to face the attitude of the Central Union Council at municipal level that called on workers to accept the new contract.
But many workers refused the blackmail. It was at this moment that one can say that worker mobilisation in the factory really began, to save the factory, jobs and wages. And in 2011, the first strike for our demands broke out in response to the union's call.

INB: That year there were legislative elections in Bosnia...
EB: Yes, and personally I had voted for the Social Democrat Party that won the elections and formed a government. Since I had voted for them I then went to Sarajevo to question the government: “come and see what is happening with us at DITA ! Come and see what our “manager”', in fact a real liquidator, is doing”, I said to them. They gave me this answer: “but DITA is now a private company! The government cannot interfere in the the internal problems of a private company, that are not now our responsibility !” But I retorted that neither my colleagues nor I were the “private property” of anybody and that it was therefore the responsibility of this government to follow what was happening to us. And I then brought out the copy of the 2005 secret agreement between DITA and LORA to show the conditions in which our factory had been privatised.
The Minister for Industry was then obliged to come to Tuzla to speak to the workers . He tried to reassure us: "we have a new strategic partnership with a Serb company from Zrenjanin, BEOHEMIJA” ...a company that belonged to the Serb oligarch, Zelko Zunic (4). Gripped by the throat and informed of this future take over by BEOHEMIJA, the workers decided to go back to work. But little by little the production of detergents at Tuzla was brought to a stop and all we had to do was the packaging of products made in Zrenjanin in Serbia. Management started again laying us off for long periods where we had no wages. One day in October 2012, we arrived at the factory to start work, to find a big poster on which was written “Go home, we'll call you”, the factory was guarded by the police who forbade the workers to enter the factory. But the workers then decided to return home. They stayed there and said: “they don't want to let us go into the factory? Very well, then we will not let them come out”.
And that is how the workers stayed in front of the factory, for weeks (with no possibility of coming out on strike because the production was stopped). We had no wages for almost a year, with no social security, the colleagues were hungry, but they remained outside, in front of their factory even when winter temperatures went down to minus 17 degrees. The media in Bosnia began to speak of DITA. In Tuzla, the population supported us and came to bring food to the workers.
It was not only individual solidarity. Workers from other factories began to come in mass to support us: from the chemical industry and mines. The only factories that took no action were those that remained controlled by the Central Union Council, the “yellow “unions. As union leader in the factory, I solemnly addressed the Central Council, but it did not lend an ear. At that time, we were right in the election campaign and for electoral reasons, the parties campaigning were competing to see who would defend us best. Only the Social Democrat Party in power (and to whom, the Mayor of Tuzla Jasmin Imamovic belonged) did not support us. In the local media, in the name of the workers, I questioned the Mayor: “Jasmin, come and defend the workers and you can be sure that we will elect you Mayor again !”... but that call was not listened to.

INB: How did this mobilisation end?
EB: Finally, the Minister for Industry ended up coming to see us. He proposed to take the workers on a trip to Zrenjanin in Serbia to show them how well everything worked in our new “company headquarters” BEOHEMIJA. The workers refused this provocation, but exhausted by weeks of battle, they asked us to sign the protocol proposed by our new bosses. Personally I had demonstrated that this protocol would leave us on our knees, but I did not have the majority and the union had to sign. The employers took advantage of this to promote, in June a new more docile team at the head of the union. So I returned to the factory. The production of detergents had ceased and again we were just doing the packaging. Temporary lay offs had begun again and that's when a new strike broke out. The first of the workers' demands was that production start again immediately. But this time, the workers were in the factory and management and the police outside. They cut off the heating, hot water and electricity . Because of the strike and occupation, the rent paid by the firms renting part of the factory buildings was no longer paid in and the owner accused me of having frightened away the companies that rented and of being responsible -as leader of the strike committee – for the loss of 4.5 million Bosnian Marks (5)! “Let's talk of the millions of our unpaid wages and then we'll discuss your 4 millions” we answered him when he dragged us to court. We went and demonstrated every week in front of the seat of county government. The authorities were willing to discuss but did not want to hear talk about “starting up production again”. Winter was coming. Some workers started a hunger strike. I considered that an individual initiative, I did not agree with that.

INB: How did the strike at the DITA factory spread to the other companies in the town?
EB: When for reasons having nothing to do with our mobilisation, the Minister for Industry resigned and was replaced by someone else, a brutal person who knew nothing about our case, we changed our strategy and called on other factories in the town to come out and join the strike. The strike not only spread to other companies, but for the first time, we called on pensioners, the unemployed and students to join us. And that is how the first demonstration of February 2014 broke out when the masses came out on the streets in thousands.
There were not only all the factories in Tuzla, but also villagers from the area that turned up. Panic stricken by this mobilisation, county government got in touch with me and said: “let's come to an agreement!” I replied: “no problem, let's go to meet the demonstrators to discuss the terms in public”. But they were horrified. The next day, furious because of the absence of a reply, the demonstrators burnt down the headquarters of the county authorities. To-day we continue to ask for the factory to be re opened. The new Federal Government has promised that production will start again, that it will “revitalise” the factory. We have defended physically our factory an now we are at the stage of negotiation for re starting production;

INB: You said the demonstrators attacked the seat of “county” government, i.e. the institutions set up in the framework of the Dayton Agreement (1995) that followed the war. During the uprising of the workers of Tuzla, on top of the refusal of privatisation, another slogan emerged “Smrt Nacionalizmu !” (“death to nationalism”). A slogan that is in opposition with this “ethnic county” Dayton treatment of the Bosnian issue, but it is also a direct reference to the slogan of Yugoslav Partisans during the war “smrt fasizmu” (“death to fascism !”). A few years ago, in another republic originating from Yugoslavia, Slovenia, at the end of huge union demonstrations, the workers spontaneously sang the Partisans song. What does that inspire for you ?
EB: As I have explained, they had to develop these so called “nationalisms” to cover up the privatisation process. Recently there were questionnaires in Bosnia on the way people consider the nationality question and all these questionnaires have concluded that there was no “ethnic” or national rivalry between the inhabitants of Bosnia. Even during the war in 1993, in Tuzla (taking into account the weight of the working class) it was impossible to impose the division of municipal districts into “ethnic” zones ! The problem is social justice. Recently I spoke in a conference in Vienna and I said I did not represent Bosnia, but Yugoslavia. In the whole of Yugoslavia, it is “from the top” that the people were divided into national entities as a global strategy in order to atomise us. I have never been a member of a political party and I can tell you that many political parties have asked me to joint them. ! But I have never wanted to join any of the political parties called “democratic” because we have never seen so little democracy since they have governed us ! Two months ago with several comrades we founded a Communist Party and it is not by chance that we have called it “Communist”, precisely in order to pass a message on to youth. Don't forget that when the Yugoslav Communist Party began to fight in 1941, they were only a few dozen and that it ended the war with three million members. Workers who reflect will make up their own minds.

NOTES, collected by Dominique Ferré:
(1)  The industrial town of Tuzla (third town of Bosnia-Herzogovine) has a population of more than 100 000 inhabitants.

(2)  Agreement signed on the American base of Dayton (Ohio, United States) under American auspices, by the Presidents, Serb, Slobodan Milosevic, Croat, Franjo Tudjman and Bosn ian Alija Izetbegovic, that cut Bosnia up into “Ethnic counties”, Serb, Croat and Bosnian.

(3)  Ante Markovic (Croat) became Prime Minister of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in March 1989. In agreement with the other leaders of the Yugoslav Communist Party – among which Slobodan Mislosevic – he implemented a brutal programme of “economic reforms” (Markovic laws) that launched the privatisation of companies. He became a business man and economic consultant after Yugoslavia was dismantled.

(4)  Zelko Zuni: business man, in charge of executing “the dirty work” of the Serb ex President Boris Tadic.

(5)  The “convertible Mark” became, at the beginning of the years 1990, the official currency of Bosnia Herzegovina. A convertible Mark is equivalent to about 0,50 Euro.

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